Expectations of Success

Hot Topic? The interwebs are abuzz these past weeks with news about Amanda Hocking.  From unpublished author in April 2010, she now has nine (going on ten) books self published, sold 100k books in December, 450k books in January, and goodness only know how many in February - probably a lot more than January, because the mainstream news media got hold of her then, giving her a lot more exposure.  Don't get me wrong - I think it's an amazing success story, and I wish her the absolute best.  I hope she keeps writing, too, because I've read two of her books now and enjoyed both of them (Hollowland more than Switched).

But a lot of people seem to be latching on to her as the sign of everything to come - "see, this is why you should publish independently!"  Well, no, no more than you can use Stephen King as an example of why you should publish with mainstream/legacy publishing.

In any system, there will be outliers whose success greatly outstrips that of most other folks.  It just happens - no one really understands the process.  That's not a good indication of the norm, though.  Amanda actually blogged about this a little bit - she's got a good head on her shoulders.  I hope she remembers that the writing is the important part though, and keeps putting out good work book after book.  This sort of early/fast fame is problematic for many artists.

So if Ms. Hocking's success does NOT mean that the average indie will be able to sell 400k books a month soon, what does it mean?

To me, it says that the door is open.

For every one person who sells a 400k ebooks a month, there will be a few selling a hundred thousand or so, dozens who sell tens of thousands (and there are), and hundreds who sell a few thousand a month.  Now, my odds, your odds, the odds of any one person becoming an overnight breakout superstar are pretty slim.  But the odds of making it into those hundreds of successful writers selling in the thousands a month?  That race isn't about odds and chance so much as it is about elbow grease and hitting the keyboard.

To make enough money to support my family happily on writing income, I need to make about $7000 a month pre taxes.  We could get by on a couple thousand less than that, but I think it's a reasonable target to shoot for.  That's $4340 after taxes, roughly (gotta love that 38% income tax...ah, well).  Pretty nice living, really, even counting having to pay for your own medical insurance.  It's not high off the hog, but not a bad number.  It's more than a lot of other folks make, doing jobs they don't like nearly as much.

That's 3500 $2.99 ebooks per month.

Not 100k.  Not 450k.  Three thousand five hundred.  It's still a lot.  It's more than most authors manage.  But I think it falls into the range of "doable, with a few years of hard work", so it's a respectable target to shoot for.

As my wife points out, even a couple hundred sales a month would equate to some nice extra income.  Even that would be a "success", to some degree.  So a lot of what "success" is depends upon how you define it.  I hope we don't see a generation of writers look at Amanda Hocking's success, try to emulate it, fail in the first year and then give up writing.  That would be a tragic shame.  We'd lose a lot of good writing they might have produced in later years.

Remember that there is no way you can control sales of your books.  You can only write the best book you can, and ship it somewhere to be sold (legacy or independent publishing, whichever).  Then do it again.  And again.  And keep doing it, keep focusing on improving and building a body of work, until you reach your goals.  At that point, it's time to set new goals.  ;)